Sasa Stojanovic / The Best Off

No, this is not a mistake, the title is not meant to indicate the best of Sasa Stojanovic, but rather the fact that (according to his own experience) the best is turned off, hence pointing to the final defeat of the beautiful and humane, children’s innocence and artistic chastity, which is openly reviewed by the author, thistime in retrospective through his own exhibitional look back.

It is a manner of clear recognition of the purposelessness, as he sees it, of investing extreme strengths of growing internal energies, primarily emotional and imaginary, which have, in the case of this artist, always been in constant growth and ebullition – since his fist public appearance, performances held in Pristina in 1996, up to the most recent paintings created this year.

‘At the end of the 20th century, at the crossroads of the millennia, drabness, pain and the cold of dirty puddles, represent an imposed landscape. Paper boats seem like Noah’s ark. Precisely due to this look, they require a return to child’s purity as the only way to avoid catastrophe’, wrote Sasa Stojanovic in the flyer for performance ‘Oh the Little Boats – Said “Dada”’, which was held on the streets of Pristina on December 12, 1996. The performance consisted of placing 96 small boats made of bright yellow paper in dirty puddles, representing a symbol of collapse (not only of that town) in a country with grim outlook and a glimpse of dramatic future about to take place. Short, two-hour shining of the yellow paper in the overall drabness of our daily lives, announced a very characteristic creative individuality warning us, unobtrusively, softly, and gently, about the dangerous side-tracks taken by the society – but just like all others, even much louder comments, it remained soundless, unnoticed, completely excluded from the public discourse, left only to those few, sensitized in the same way as the artist himself.

A series of performances held before 2000, continued with “Minute of Joy” (Pristina, 1997), held before the full “Boro and Ramiz” concert hall, as a contrast to then frequently overused ‘minute of silence’, a sign of time of deaths during those years.

Then followed “Regression of Society” (Nis, 1997), “Three Minute Picture” (Novi Sad, 1997), “Last Attempt to Cure the Earth” (Pristina 1997), “SFRJ” (Novi Sad, Belgrade, 1998-99), “Soiled Hands are Cleaned Easily (Belgrade, 1998) and “Man” (Belgrade 1999). These publicly held performances in different open and closed spaces demonstrated that Mr. Stojanovic was on his way up in the political sense, but without abandoning his poetics of soft pressure on the public, attempting to redirect it’s attention either towards certain endangered basic human rights (“Soiled Hands…” was held in front of the entrance of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences on the day of the signing of the universal declaration on human rights), or underestimated artistic values (“Three Minute Picture” was dedicated to Slobodan Tisma), or towards the feeling of responsibility for his own destiny (“Man” was dedicated to politically and judicially persecuted artist Nune Popovic), which was at the time increasingly dubious. Other listed performances have demonstrated strong interest of the author in posing neuralgic questions of our society in the context of concrete circumstances, before an audience which was supposed to be awoken from the deep lethargy of helplessness and given tragedy, and instead pushed to actively stand up to threatening dangers which culminated precisely during the bombing in 1999. And that was the beginning of the end of a regime which produced artists such as Mr. Stojanovic, his quiet, pacifist movement of artistic resistance, non-compliance with his own and collective fate of general endangerment, and expressed gentleness against growing war and non-war violence and sentiment toward the breakup of a large state. The final end of that regime was marked by a coup in 2000, when artists, sensitized in similar ways, found themselves in a completely different situation, which seemed to many as a return of hope, realization of the impossible, awakening from a nightmare. However, that moment was short, which is apparent in this type of Sasa Stojanovic’s art work.

First performance held by Mr. Stojanovic after the change of the regime was “Food for Pigeons” (Belgrade, 2000), which he dedicated to John Lennon. With this, he exposed another side of his creative personality. By dedicating this performance to Lennon, Stojanovic stressed that ‘through his music and activism, (Lennon) reaffirmed love and human rights and renounced war, violence, and racism’, therefore being in line with the artists’ own values and creative work. Here, he also demonstrated the influence on his art by rock music as a larger movement within the pop culture. Actually, Mr. Stojanovic also belonged to that movement, which can clearly be traced through his paintings. The next performance, “These are Not Toys” (Belgrade, Vranje, 2001), was dedicated to children who grew up in war-time circumstances,and who, by breaking their toy plastic guns, expressed their attitude towards dying and recently ended period of destruction – towards all that they, as youngest members of the society, did not want to be a part of. One of the most significant performances which Sasa Stojanovic held in the post-war period was “Heart 2002” (Belgrade, 2002) at the opening of the October Art Exhibit. He commented that it was not “a romantic-utopian entrancement, but a civilization act”, which represents a completely new quality, if compared to his early work. On a general level, this performance goes in line with “Step, Earth, Wood” (Belgrade, 2003), “Bread” and “Life” (Belgrade, 2004) and “Marjan Benes” (Belgrade, 2005), in which Stojanovic opens ethical questions related to daily life and fate of people. With it, he put a closure on cycle of performances – from early ones, reflecting death, destruction, decay, to later ones, dealing with human rights, new life (which is also difficult), fate and existences which the transition also endangered or crippled, often erased, leaving artists like Sasa Stojanovic with large space for artistic expression.

Simultaneously with holding performances, Stojanovic painted as well – oil on canvas. The oldest paintings date back to 1996,and they were exhibited for the first time at his first individual exhibition in Nis 1997. For the last ten years (the most recent exhibition being the one opened in Belgrade in 2007), Stojanovic has remained consistent with his early painting language which he carefully cultivated throughout his opus, thematically interweaving his public actions with exhibits. According to Stojanovic, if he holds on to children’s view of reality, he may remain closer to it, and with that, his ‘testimonies’ would remain more truthful. Purposely avoiding turning his art work into an academic discipline with clear media distinctions, Stojanovic kept his work at an elementary drawing level, clothed in extreme, imposing colors. Through these infantile, cheerful sights, the artist expresses the truths which would be less acceptable, and in more drastic cases, even refused with disgust as fake or propaganda, if they were communicated through more severe expression means. Being familiar with the similar responses to the “black wave” in our art, Stojanovic overflowed the galleries with his “cheerful wave”, with which he attempted to seduce the audience and in an acceptable manner, without poking fingers in open wounds, paint the true picture of the times in which we live, of values being promoted, and show the depth of suffering which attacks us daily…

This painting opus can be divided into several parts. First, there are the early paintings, produced in 1996 and 1997, showing the more narrative nature, where the artist seems to attempt to gain the interest of the audience not only with the visual, but also with the story. Second is the period of dedication to pop culture, where paintings seem to be mostly influenced by comicstrip art. Here the artist communicated mostly with the poster vocabulary, full of open messages dealing with the social and political reality in which he lived. After 2000, Stojanovic completely clears out his paintings, leaving them only with elementary drawing drenched in strong, intensive colors. This opus shows an unlikely combination of Klee, Haring, and Naivist influence, infantilism and humor, optimism and nostalgia, all at the same time, practically in the same piece, with the apparent need of the artist to first entertain, and then direct the audience towards more careful analysis of the painting narrative (stressed also in the title of these art works).

Finally, a special chapter in Sasa Stojanovic’s work is a small opus, made of only four art works, from 1998 and 2001, which he created in the form of posters, for the Human Rights Committee in Leskovac, “Fortunately, the General Likes Children”, for album cover of ‘Obojeni Program’ music band, “Plea of Conscience”, for Women in Black organization in Belgrade, and “The Rights through Children’s Eyes” for the United Nations. In this work, too, Stojanovic has remained completely faithful to himself – both in the painting manner and particular narrative, which characterizes his entire painting art work.

The place of Sasa Stojanovic in recent Serbian art is very special. He is practically incomparable to any of the numerous art features on today’s rich, even overly plentiful art scene. Among all of them, he is one of the very few who represent the true voices of the new (this) century, the voices which will be heard far and for a long time. Why? Simply because Sasa Stojanovic “still looks forward to the air traveling in balloons” (as he says himself), and because his The Best Off is just a temporary phase, which is usually the case with those not adequately recognized by their contemporaries, but whose footsteps will be clearly seen in the time to come – the future, which always sheds better light on the present.

Jovan Despotovic

Belgrade, 6 November 2007